Annie's Song

         Momma’s pleased that I started playing piano. She takes it as a sign I’ve gotten over the worst.

I don’t cry nearly as often as I used to. She notices I always practice the same tribute, a mournful song by John Denver. Never told her why.

         When I was a little girl, Daddy brought home a dog from the pound. I pat it on the head in the morning, but all that’s left when I get back from school is an empty bottle of Lamb’s Navy and a bite mark on Daddy’s face.

         “Where’s my puppy?” I ask.

         “He’s gone,” Daddy snorts, nodding to the .22 rifle leaning in the corner. “To the happy hunting grounds,” he adds gruffly.

         I protest, but my backtalk gets Daddy upset. He slaps me to the floor. I jump up sputtering. Again he knocks me flat, so I just lay there. Then he pulls me to my feet by the shirt collar and pushes me down once more.

         The next morning Daddy comes to my room and says sorry. But he’s not really. That night he gets drunk and hits Mom. I cower in a wardrobe box in the basement. Cover my ears so I can’t hear.

         Now I keep a notebook hidden in my closet. Mark down an “x” every time Daddy does me wrong. I’ll pay him back some day. With children, you reap what you sow.

         You give a girl a gun, you expect her to use it. Daddy taught me to shoot. First at gophers. They’re just pests anyway, digging holes in farmer’s fields where a horse can trip and break his leg.

         Our family is moving back to the ranch. Grandma had a stroke, she needs our help. From my window seat the sparse prairie stretches flat like that dime Daddy left on the tracks when our train pulled out of the station.

         Ranching is less a business than a way of life. Don’t you city kids want to know? It’s a love of the outdoors, manual labour and independence. A dream carried with pride and persistence from generation to generation.

         Daddy throws himself into the traces. Takes all of our savings and borrows more to buy a Romanian tractor with a cab and four extra quarters of land. Grandma runs a mixed beef cow-calf operation with about three hundred head.

         The good news is, we’re getting another dog. She’s a black border collie. A frenetic bundle of wiggles and waggles with white patches splashed like stars across her chest. I name her “Annie.”

         Dad also drives to Lloydminster to buy two French Charolais cows. He plans on raising a purebred herd. They stretch tall like horses as they stumble off the truck and through the chute in the moonlight.

         “My great white hopes!” Daddy whispers.

         I’m happy in the spring when one of those Charolais cows gives birth to a healthy bull calf, but Daddy’s quick to correct me, “That’s no good. I wanted a heifer.” Heifers can have more calves so his herd will grow quicker.

         Another water bag breaks, our second purebred goes into labour, except the calf’s too big, there’s trouble with the delivery. We put her on a truck and drive out to the vet, but in the middle of her C-section, the cow dies from blood loss, the calf asphyxiates. It would have been a heifer.

         In our first week at the ranch, Annie chases the yearlings through the fence. Daddy loses a day rounding them up and re-stringing barbwire.

         “I’ll shoot that damn dog!” he mutters through gritted teeth.

         Even Grandma gets mad when two days later, the neighbours bring Annie home after she strays into their barnyard and kills five chickens.

         Mom saves the day and calms Daddy down.

         “We’ve only just moved here. It’s lonely on the farm,” she says.

         Don’t I know it, standing in a field of barley, staring up at a goshhawk circling high in the sky. I have no friend yet, except little Davy Hancock, who lives a mile up the road.

         Davy often comes around to watch my Uncle Ben fix equipment. Uncle Ben doesn’t mind, little Davy’s full of boyish insights about cows and dogs or the time he chased his brother with a steak knife. The Hancock’s aren’t too sophisticated, sometimes you’ll catch Davy’s father skinning a muskrat on the kitchen table. We skin ours in the basement.

         I spend that summer helping Daddy break his new land, picking rocks and clearing roots. It’s gruelling work, lugging heavy stones to the flatbed on foot in July heat. Davy pitches in too, just because he likes our company. Uncle Ben pays him twenty-five cents an hour anyway, he’s a good little hired hand.

         My family is a picture of industry. Looking down in the valley, you’ll see three oily tractors criss-crossing our home section, often racing against a storm. Daddy pulls the hay conditioner while Uncle Ben stukes bales. Grandma zips along fastest on her old Cockshutt diesel, turning windrows to dry. The tined wheels of her rake spin like a big daddy long legs crawling over the stubble.

         I’m too young to drive, but that doesn’t stop little Davy, he’s on another tractor helping his own father in the next field.

         Mom puts me to work weeding peas in the garden. Such chores don’t interrupt the frequent forays Annie and I take into the pasture hunting sharp-tailed grouse. Annie sniffs and chews at blood-speckled feathers, and on some level, must equate death with the scent of gunpowder and the warm barrel of my .22.

         One fateful afternoon, I jump on my bike to ride along the highway into town. Annie follows. She’s not used to the strange vehicles that pass by and their speed. Snaps at them to defend me and boldly chases a few. How could I have been so stupid? Annie misjudges her attack on a late model Pontiac driven by some high school kid. The front bumper hits her square in the back end and sends her cartwheeling off the pavement.

         Oh, the piteous yelps! Propped on two front paws, Annie pulls herself around in tight circles in the ditch, dragging her hind legs. In shock I rush over but my efforts to comfort are met with a snarl. She can’t walk, so I ride into town alone and call mother.

         Steeped in heartache, I blurt out, “Better bring the .22. We’ll prolly have to put her down!”

         Mom arrives in good time and drives me back to where Annie was hit, but the dog can’t be found. We search the bush and there’s still no sign. Must have crawled off to die. Or otherwise, get eaten by coyotes.

         Lacklustre minutes roll into tedious hours. I shuffle with scuffed shoes in aimless rings about the corrals, past our favourite haunts, turning over those final moments in my mind. Staring at an empty dog dish on the front porch. Closure is elusive without a proper burial.

         It’s three days later when Dad walks into the house with a soft expression. In a tight voice he announces that my “old friend” has come home.

         “Annie!” I scream, bursting out through the screen door and squeezing her neck in a fervent hug. She dumbly licks the joyful tears from my face.

         “Be careful of her back end!” Daddy warns. “It’s still pretty sore.”

         This unlikely reunion will forever remain the happiest moment of my childhood.

         I join the 4H beef club in the fall. Daddy picks out our rangiest steer from the herd. It’s wild and scared, freshly weaned from its mother. When I try to lead him with a halter, he turns and runs the other way. I’m dragged along by five hundred pounds of freedom in a flash of friction and rope burn.

         But we tie the steer up in a stall. I care for him all winter. Feed him alfalfa and buckets of chop. Break the ice in his trough every day so he can drink. Shovel out the stable with a pitchfork. Currycomb straw from his coat.

         Over time he rewards my kindnesses with tolerance. I’m able to climb on the fence beside him, gently ease one leg over his broad back and inch my way across until I’m sitting cowboy-style atop him, while he peacefully eats.

         I also catch ringworm from such close contact. A cousin on the school bus asks about the blotches on my face. I lie and say it’s a burn I got from smoking a cigarette while pouring purple gas.

         Annie remains my foremost companion. We’re out for a walk when she has a run-in with a porcupine.

         “You stupid kid! Why’d you let her do that?” Dad shouts at me later as he tries with his pliers to extract forty quills from her muzzle. We end up driving out to Grande Centre again, another costly vet bill we can’t afford.

         It’s not a great time to be farming. Cattle prices drop steadily to their lowest level in years. Interest rates rise to 17%. We lose twenty calves due to scours. It’s like a severe flu, they get diarrhoea and die of dehydration.

         Uncle Ben once talked about becoming a vet, but it’s a stretch for a man who never finished high school. He tries his best jumping around in rubber boots bottle-feeding them electrolytes, but it doesn’t always work. Our money’s running out. It’s hard paying bills much less interest. Daddy says the banker is threatening to call his loan.

         To make ends meet, Uncle Ben and Dad butcher a cow every week and sell the fresh meat locally to acquaintances. It’s only a stopgap measure, sales aren’t much.

         My 4H steer takes second place at the show down in Meadow Lake. Safeway Foods pay a premium price for the Grand Champion, but runner-up never fetches nearly as much. Daddy enters the auction trying to raise the bid. Professional buyers aren’t readily fooled. We end up having to purchase our own steer back and haul him home again.

         He’s now twelve hundred pounds of grain-fed beef and no different from the rest. I hold the halter while Daddy shoots him. The deafening recoil of the big rifle accompanies the steer’s ignominious collapse. Stiff legs splay straight out from the fallen carcass in a puff of dust while a trickle of blood slowly runs from its breathless nostrils. Daddy moves to slice the steer’s throat and we hoist it up with a front-end loader. Set about skinning the animal in silence.

         Mom and Dad are fighting a lot lately. Dad comes in from the yard and grumbles about eating stew leftovers two days in a row. Mom says, “Well, you don’t have to eat it,” so Dad dumps it on her head. Uncle Ben jumps up like he wants to do something, but just walks out in disgust taking his plate to the living room.

         Round about this time old Mr. Hancock tumbles through the front door, yelling, “Ben! Ya gotta come quick!”

         The men charge out into the field. Little Davy stalled his tractor taking a run at that steep hill we call “Baldy.” He popped the clutch, the tractor flipped over backwards and rolled on top of him. By the time they get it off, there’s not much left of poor Davy. He’s gone before they reach the hospital.

         The next morning I wake up to fearful sounds coming from the bedroom. The hoarse, guttural sobs of a man broken by fate. I’ve never heard Daddy cry before. Don’t move until it’s quiet again.

         Daddy tells us a few days later that we’re selling the farm. Going back to Alberta where he’ll work on the rigs. That doesn’t bother me, until he says that Annie won’t be coming.

         “It wouldn’t be fair to a farm dog to move her to town,” he contends.

         When Daddy puts his foot down, there’s no point in arguing. But I’m not the little girl I once was. We’ve all toughened up. I’ll have my say.

         Daddy wants to leave Annie with the neighbours, but I know she’ll just escape to try and find me. Maybe get run over in the process or eaten by coyotes.

         You don’t take a girl away from her dog. So I ask Grandma where she’s been keeping the .22 shells. Load up my rifle. Then I walk to the garage where I know Daddy will have to come to take off his dirty coveralls. Annie follows along at my heels like she’s done a hundred times.

         We wait in the dark. Annie’s restless. Dad walks in and turns on the light. I raise my gun and Annie looks up as if to ask, “Hey, what are you doing?” I close my eyes and pull the trigger.

         Dad carries me to the house. I tiptoe to the couch and bury my face in the cushions. Whispers in the kitchen. An unsuppressed gasp. Momma doesn’t want to believe it, runs out on the porch shrieking into the still night air, “Annie! Annie!” for a dog that will never come. From somewhere in the house, I hear the radio playing a mournful song by John Denver.

Stories by Nelson L. Eshleman have appeared in the Southern Ocean Review, The Adirondack Review, Asia Literary Review, SN Review, Off Course Literary Journal, Elimae, 3:AM Magazine, Milk Magazine, Brittle Star, Fifteen Project, Hamilton Stone Review, Eclectica, Upstairs at Duroc, 3711 Atlantic and Word Riot. He reminds aspiring authors of the general rule in short fiction that you should never write about your father and don't kill a dog.

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